Chappie is the latest film from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, and is about a robot that is programmed to become self-aware.
Blomkamp and stars Sharlto Copley, Sigourney Weaver, and Hugh Jackman participated in a conference recently to discuss the film. Some answers have been edited for clarity.
Have you thought a lot about what it would be like if a robot became self-aware?
Hugh Jackman: Of course. I thought about it a little bit until this movie, when I thought about it a lot. And one of the great things about working with Neill, one of the many great things, is he has thought so deeply about the philosophical part of this movie; not only about robots becoming sentient or thinking or feeling — that sort of evolution — but just about the very nature of consciousness: What is it? Can we somehow capture it, bottle it? Can we use it? — honestly, at a level that I am way behind. So during the filming I thought about it a lot. Generally, I’m an optimist. I know that at every major turning point in history, the creation of the train, for example, there were many many people who thought this was the end of civilization, that this would be the road to doom for mankind. I’m sure when the television came about, similar things occurred. I’m a firm believer that the pull for human beings is towards the good, generally, outweighing the bad. So I don’t know why or what it is, it’s just my, maybe naive optimistic view, that whatever knowledge we gain, and if it comes to pass, that we can somehow understand what consciousness is, and if we can somehow create that, that it will ultimately be used for good. And I’m sure along the way there will be bad, there will be exploiters, but that’s my general view. So unlike my character, I like to think optimistically about these sort of discoveries and advancements.
Was there ever any sort of opposition from religious groups, and did you ever think about introducing aspects of that sort (religious questions) into the film?
Neill Blomkamp: Well, the original concept for Hugh’s character was always to be in opposition to artificial intelligence. You have A.I., and you have the point of view that if someone’s creating artificial intelligence, they’re basically walking into God’s territory. That you’re doing something that should only be left to God, therefore you shouldn’t do it. That sort of opposition was always in the script. In terms of getting feedback from it, it really was just decisions in the edit: How much do you want to weigh one way or the other?
Thematically, this film touches on the nature of consciousness and what it means to be alive, themes that have been explored since Pinocchio and all the up to Real Steel. Why do you think these themes keep resonating with humanity as we advance?
NB: My point of view, actually, on artificial intelligence, which ties into the nature for humans constantly looking into the reasons for why we exist and why consciousness exists, changed during the making of Chappie. And I’m not sure that humans will ever be capable of giving birth to A.I. in the way films fictionalize it. So, you have weak artificial intelligence, which is like a robot or a computer system, that follows a list of protocols, and it’s like yes/no answers that can be as complex as you want. And then you have strong A.I., which is like a human, like something that can think up a thought that’s never been thought up, or paint a painting, or write a poem. So in the realm of strong A.I., in the realm of human consciousness, I think that it’s been something that troubles humans or forces us to look at it over and over for a millennia, or as long as we’ve really been conscious. Because there is no answer. There is no explanation for us to, even for one per cent, to grip onto and hold onto. So we just don’t know why we’re here. We don’t know how consciousness is created. And we don’t know the nature of consciousness, whether it becomes this spiritual and philosophical discussion, or whether it’s simply running electrical currents through synapses and that leads to consciousness. (I think it isn’t that, by the way.) So, it’s probably the most core, fundamental question humans can ask, and I think that’s the reason we constantly keep asking it.
Sharlto, what was it like giving your performance as Chappie, with all the emotion you had to give, and what was it like being on set with everybody?
Sharlto Copley: It was a fun experience, really, to get to play a kid most of the time. We used a process that’s really, I think, going to become more and more prevalent in Hollywood, like a performance capture process where I wore a grey suit and was able to engage with everybody on the set as you normally would, just act the robot. And then an incredibly skilled team of animators […] put Chappie on top of me, and had to try and, with the very limited face that Chappie has, convey the emotion that I, obviously, got to use my whole face for, while the animators only had certain tools — ears, things they could do with the eyes. It was almost a magical experience, you, me, and these two hundred people that kind of gave birth to this totally new, creative being. In a small way, it was like creating A.I. and, as an actor, you kind of made some new being.
Hip-hop culture is so ingrained in this film. Why is that culture so important that it has spanned the continents?
NB: Well, I guess there’s two reasons for that. The first, primary reason is the band, Die Antwoord. I don’t know if “band” is the right word. I don’t know if “rap group” is the right work. But them. They were extremely important to me to be in the film, pretty much from the time I came up with it. They themselves are naturally a mixture of different forms of hip-hop and South African rap culture, influenced by U.S. rap culture and everything. Just putting them in is probably seventy-five per cent or eighty per cent of what the audience will perceive as that. The other, smaller amount was that I didn’t necessarily want to shoot the movie in South Africa, because of District 9. I wanted to put it in North America. We actually did a draft of the script that was in North America just to test it. But Die Antwoord was so essential to the film that by putting them in North America it felt like a fish out of water. It felt like the wrong move to do. So keeping it in South Africa, it allowed them be in their native environment. It felt legit. But I still wanted to Americanize the film as much as I could on purpose. I wanted to go away from District 9 and not delve into the very South African themes you can get into very easily in South Africa, because it’s really rife with them. So that was choices like putting Jose [Pablo Cantillo] in their gang, who was an American, and little choices like that that just add up. There’s hundreds of time in the movie when, normally we would do ADR for random soldiers or random helicopter pilots, I actively made them be American voices, and I knew that Americans wouldn’t notice, and I knew the entire South African audience would notice. And I also knew that the entire South African audience noticing is like Philadelphia on a Thursday night, so it doesn’t matter.
SC: Thanks, man. I’m sitting right here.
NB: No, man. I love South Africa.
Sigourney, what was working on this film like compared to other sci-fi movies you worked on? What was different, if anything?
Sigourney Weaver: I think every science fiction film I’ve done has been pretty distinctive in terms of their worlds. And what I love about Neill’s film, all three of them that I’ve seen, is that, you know, sometimes people think of sci-fi as “film lite.” And Neill’s films always have such an underpinning of something that’s actually very important for us all to discuss and to think about. And so we had a riotous good time making the movie. It was so happy, and it was so exciting to work in South Africa, with such an interesting international crew, to work with Hugh and Sharlto and Neill. But I also felt that the movie has so much to say to us in terms of what it is to be human, and, in a sense, that word “human” is a hard work to define now, because there’s so many inhumane acts in the film perpetrated by humans, not perpetrated by robots. So I just love how he has this cauldron going of all these very important issues underneath a very entertaining movie.
A lot of robot movies are about robots versus humans rather than robots being beneficial to humans. When did you come up with the themes of the film? Before you started writing or along the way?
NB: It didn’t happen along the way. I think it’s part of this bigger thought process. The bigger thought process would be that you can take all the matter on the planet, you can take a bunch of carbon, and you can reconfigure it into anything you want if you had the power to do that. So I think the fact that natural selection and evolution crafted, essentially, carbon and water into a mechanism that can think and be conscious means there’s nothing in physics that says you can’t do that to a greater degree. You could build a brain the size of this room, theoretically. Or you could build a silicon-based life form, and it could be sentient. There’s no limit to the height that you can reach in terms of design once we figure out how to design things, theoretically. And this gets into God versus technological discussions about what’s possible. So Chappie is essestially: If it takes several billion years to build the essential building blocks, RNA and DNA, and those can build multi-cellular life, and multi-cellular life can be honed with natural selection to where it becomes sentient, like us, then at some point that sentient being can manipulate matter around it to build better sentient life. Which is like maybe where we’re starting to arrive now in the 21st century. There’s a lot of evidence in evolutional sciences that show that altruism and acting in ways that are empathetic to others are actually beneficial on an evolutionary basis. So this notion that robots have to declare nuclear war is one part of the discussion, but it may not be reality. Maybe the reality is that it can empathize on a far greater degree than we can experience a far greater range of emotions. So why not have a robot that can do that? And I think that if you left Chappie for twenty years, he would be in a place sort of unfathomable for humans. So that was the genesis.
Check out some clips from the film out this Friday, March 6.